Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Do Not Be Afraid: A discussion on musical appreciation vs appropriation by Melissa Morgan

The subject of cultural appropriation verses cultural appreciation is a hot topic right now. While there are several books, articles, and blogs which address this subject, I have found that musicians and specifically choral conductors do not know what to do when programming music from a culture different from their own. My conducting colleagues have confided in me to say, “I want to be an ally, I want to diversify my program but I’m afraid that I will do it wrong. I do not want to offend anyone.” There is a real fear out there and these emotions of fear can have a firm grip on musicians. As a result, we tend to avoid certain music because we are afraid. We are afraid of what others will think; we are afraid that we will get it wrong; we do not want to be criticized, and not to mention, that we all have a lot going on and getting it wrong will simply add to the stress that currently exists in our lives. The goal of this blog is to encourage all musicians (myself included) to feel the fear, make the preparations, do the work, and go for it!

Let’s talk about the subject of appropriation – what it is?

In March 2019, choral educator, conductor, composer, speaker, and writer, Dr. Rollo Dilworth, gave a presentation posted on the Chorus America website titled “Examining Cultural Appropriation in the Preparation and Performance of Choral Music”. I have found this presentation to be extremely helpful when trying to understand how to define appropriation. Let me summarize it for you.

Dilworth is a prolific composer who writes primarily in the gospel style. He mentions in his presentation that he receives numerous, almost daily, messages about how to authentically perform his music. He shares that conductors will often ask the questions:
“ Is it appropriate for me to even consider doing this music?”
“Am I allowed to perform this music when I do not identify with the culture?”

He highlights three categories of people that fit within the framework of his discussion. People who are:

1) Comfortable: This person perceives their identity as the “Insider” -- as someone who is comfortable embracing cultural traditions or norms, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are a member of the cultural group or perhaps they have lots of experience working and living within the norms of the cultural group (Dilworth 2019). 

2) Somewhat: This person perceives their identity as someone who is moderately comfortable embracing cultural traditions or norms. Perhaps they feel confident in certain situations because they have a connection to a particular culture or group or perhaps, they are biracial or multi-racial (Dilworth 2019).

3) Uncomfortable: this person perceives their identity as someone who is not comfortable embracing cultural traditions or norms. These people admit that they do not have any knowledge or experience in a particular culture and they perceive their identity as an, “outsider” (Dilworth 2019). 

From there, Dilworth refers to the Canadian philosopher, James Young and his book, Cultural Appropriation and the Arts in which Young defines and describes three types of appropriation (Young 2008):

Young’s definition of appropriation is this:  “when members of one culture (outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (insiders)”(Dilworth 2019).

The three categories of appropriation as described by Young are:

Object – “object appropriation occurs when the possession of a tangible work of art (such as a sculpture or a painting) is transferred from members of one culture to members of another culture” (Young 2008).

Content – “When this sort of appropriation occurs, an artist has made significant reuse of an idea first expressed in the work of an artist from another culture. A musician who sings the songs of another culture has engaged in content appropriation as has the writer who retells stories produced by a culture other than his own” (Young 2008).

Subject – “ . . . outsiders who represent in their artworks individuals or institutions from another culture. . . when this type of appropriation occurs no artistic product of a culture is appropriated. Instead artists appropriate a subject matter . . .” (Young 2008).

Something Dilworth highlights is that Young does not place a moral value on these definitions. He simply categorizes and defines terms for exactly what they are. Young does not state that subject, content or object appropriation is necessarily bad. In fact, Dilworth suggests in his presentation that appropriation is not always negative.

Dilworth introduces another scholar in his presentation, Richard Rogers, who argues that cultural appropriation “Is inescapable when cultures come into contact including virtual or representational contact”(Rogers 2006). Rogers explores the idea that unless we live in a culture without exposure to other cultures (i.e. we have never eaten another culture’s food, or worn their clothing or jewelry, read a book by an author from that culture, or watched a film -- which he argues are all levels of engaging in cultural appropriation -- then we are participating or have participated in cultural appropriation: it is unavoidable. 

Armed with this information, Dilworth goes on to ask self-reflecting questions of himself and invites the presentation audience to do the same. 

Question #1 – If according to scholars appropriation is inescapable – how do we navigate the arts without being offensive or harmful?(Dilworth 2019) 

Question #2 – Is there such a thing as acceptable cultural appropriation?(Dilworth 2019)

This is where Dilworth highlights three acceptable instances of appropriation (Dilworth 2019):

1) Cultural exchange – An agreed-upon time where two cultural groups mutually come together to learn and share with each other. This could include a tour exchange or some sort of cultural exchange. The key is that there are equal levels of power between cultural groups (Dilworth 2019).

2) Cultural appreciation – using elements of a specific culture in our work but taking the necessary steps to honour, respect and value the original source (Dilworth 2019).

3) Cultural assumption – a term coined by Dilworth – “used to define instances in which we harmlessly (and sometimes unknowingly) interact with culture outside of our own. Such examples include watching a film, listening to music, eating food” (Dilworth 2019).

We all need to understand when appropriation is negative or simply wrong. Based on Young’s research, Dilworth mentions three ways in which cultural appropriation is wrong or objectionable:

1) Cultural appropriation as theft – Young defines this as “outsiders taking (without proper permission) property that belongs to insiders”(Young 2008), e.g., using an instrument such as an Indigenous ceremonial hand drum as part of a performance without asking permissions.

2) Cultural appropriation as assault – “causing harm to a culture or members of a culture and in some cases threaten the viability of a culture (Young 2008),”e.g., recording the performance and selling it for profit without compensating the rightful owners of the drum.

3) Cultural appropriation as profound offence – offense to one’s moral sensibilities (Young 2008), e.g., when an act of appropriation has been taken too far – when theft, assault and moral disrespect has taken place.

Dilworth then asks another question of himself and of the participants in the audience: What can we do to move forward?

Here, I will refer to suggestions in which Dr. Floydd Ricketts, artistic director and conductor of Ensemble Noir in Montreal Quebec, recently shared in a webinar with the Phoenix Chamber Choir: Making Music in the Mess. Ricketts gives nine insightful helpful tips in the webinar but I will highlight four, and then add a suggestion of my own and finally, conclude with another suggestion from Dilworth:

1. Recognize – “it is not enough for you to only acknowledge appropriation after someone brings it to your attention. The only way that we can go about ending appropriation or at least abating it, is for everyone to know what appropriation looks like, and to call it out. Be an ally” (Andrews 2020).

2. Involve people – “Credit alone is not enough. If you want to engage in a culture that isn’t your own, involve people of that culture, ask them questions (assuming they want to be involved), and invite them to share their stories and experiences” (Andrews 2020).

3. Education – “It is extremely important to be aware of historical context. In my opinion, this gets people into trouble more than any other point. If you don’t understand all the pain, trauma, the triumphs that lead to the development of a genre of music, you are bound to error. . . do your own in-depth research before seeking counsel from the community in question” (Andrews 2020).

4. The hard truth – “Recognise that, unfortunately, even if you get all of this right, you may still be accused of appropriation. This is because there is seldom only one authority in a cultural community. Gaining permission from one authority does not mean that all other connected communities will agree with that authority. . . . while you may have done due diligence . . . knowledge is invisible, and it will not always be obvious to others that you have done the work. Be prepared to solidly answer questions about your familiarity with the material and the culture surrounding it” (Andrews 2020).

5. Know your “why” – In his book, Start with Why, Thought leader, Simon Sinek, reminds us all to get to the heart of the matter (Sinek 2009). Know your purpose. Understand what are your true intentions. Believe in your “why” and others will recognize your authentic intentions and believe with you (Holley Jr. 2019).

6. Find the original source – “There is an assumption that if music is published and in print then there is some level of permission. This may be the case but is not always the case. Therefore, one should acknowledge the original source, if need be or if in doubt, contact the original source for the permissions necessary. Do due diligence – we must be discerning” (Dilworth 2019).

It is my hope that after reading this blog, someone will be empowered to move forward and explore the choral work of a culture for which they are not familiar, without fear. Acknowledge that engaging with a new culture, language, or musical style may present challenges. For this reason, preparation (research, engaging in conversation, actively seeking to develop relationships with ‘insiders’, listening, self-reflection, taking time) is key. 

We are living through challenging but very exciting times and with boundless opportunities. Now is not the time to ‘play it safe’ but it is the time to take the risk and teach fearlessly, love more, share what we know, and learn about what we do not know.  If we make the preparations, make connections, do the research and necessary work, then we should not be afraid to share the stories of others but rather strive to break down cultural barriers in our choral communities.

Websites and links to repertoire lists and organizations:

African Diaspora Music Project: http://africandiasporamusicproject.org

African American Art Song Alliance: https://www.artsongalliance.org

AfriClassical.com: https://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/index.html

Beyond Elijah Rock: The non-idiomatic choral music of Black composers: 

Exigence: https://www.sphinxmusic.org/exigence-vocal-ensemble/

Institute for Composer Diversity: https://www.composerdiversity.com

Malaysian Choral Composers Series: Vivian Chua: https://tracywongmusic.com/posts/blog-mccs-vivianchua


Andrews, N., Frédéricka Petit-Homme Condon, Leela MadhavaRau, Andre Myers, Floydd Ricketts (2020). Making Music in the Mess: A conversation towards a greater understanding of African Diasporic voices in Canadian Choral Music. Phoenix Chamber Choir Webinar. https://phoenixchoir.com/2020/07/webinar-making-music-in-the-mess-video: 1:20:17.
Dilworth, R. (2019). Exploring Cultural Appropriation in Choral Music. Chorus America Website, Chorus America.
Holley Jr., E. (2019). "Cultural Appropriation: From Culture Stealing to Culture Sharing." Retrieved Oct. 2, 2020, from https://www.chorusamerica.org/article/cultural-appropriation-culture-stealing-culture-sharing.
Rogers, R. A. (2006) From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation. Communication Theory 16, 474-503 DOI: https://doi-org.libproxy.uregina.ca/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2006.00277.x
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why : how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, Portfolio.
Young, J. O. (2008). Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Malden, MA, Blackwell publishing.

Photo credit Danielle Tocker Photography

Dr. Melissa Morgan is the Assistant Professor of Choral Music in the department of Media, Arts, and Performance at the University of Regina. An active conductor, she is frequently asked to serve as a guest clinician, adjudicator, and conductor with high school, children’s choirs, and church choirs throughout Canada. 

Dr. Morgan holds a Doctorate of Music Performance in Choral Conducting from the University of Toronto, a Master of Music Performance in Choral Conducting from the University of Western Ontario, a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Regina. She is also an Associate of the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music (ARCT) in piano, voice, and flute. 

For more information on Dr. Morgan please visit her website: www.classicmel.ca

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